Paul Chryst added a couple more firsts, heading into his first week as head coach. Monday, he announced his first depth chart. This of course, all part of his first Big East teleconference and Pitt press conference.
The depth chart, or in this case the two deep, is always one of the biggest story lines for any team—especially heading into the first game. It has some extra meaning for Pitt this year, with the biggest question mark being Ray Graham's status—will he start, and is he able to play. Chryst addressed that during the Big East teleconference on Monday.
Graham started camp with the first-team at running back. Three days in to camp, he took a pre-planned day off. He then returned to the lineup, but did not go through any contact until last Monday. Chryst said it was that last week that has put Graham as a first-teamer, or at least in the conversation to be able to start Saturday.
"I really feel in the last week of camp, Ray has been feeling a lot more confident," Chryst said. "That part has been really good. We're still going to see how it goes this week. The thing that has been encouraging to us, and to Ray, is that he's making progress."
If not, it sounds like it will be Isaac Bennett and Rushel Shell. Even though Shell missed some time in camp due to a lower back injury in camp, it sounds like Shell too made up some ground in the last week. Malcolm Crockett had worked in prior to that, but now it sounds like Shell will be that other option.
"Right now, we're planning on (Shell) playing," Chryst added. "Him, Isaac Bennett, (Malcolm) Crockett has had a good camp. Right now, I can see a few running backs playing.
"I thought last week was a good week for Rushel. He missed some time in fall camp, but the last week he was able to get into a groove."
At quarterback, Tino Sunseri is the starter. It's the backup spot up for grabs, with sophomore Trey Anderson and freshman Chad Voytik in contention. Based on the depth chart, it appears Anderson is officially the No. 2 quarterback. Though Voytik played well last week, taking virtually every second-team snap at quarterback, Chryst would not rule out redshirting the freshman quarterback.
"I think that because we don't have a lot of quarterbacks, Chad has been able to get a lot of work," Chryst said. "You want to keep him developing. And yet right now, I feel really good where Tino's at and Trey has really improved. We just have to keep taking it as it comes and try to make sure we'll never put any player in that isn't ready for it. I like the way Chad has progressed, and so we just have to keep that going. We'll see what happens."
At receiver, Mike Shanahan and Devin Street appear ready to go. Chryst said in Sunday's workout, both appear game-ready. Ronald Jones and Cameron Saddler stepped up in camp, particularly the second week. Both players are listed as backups to Shanahan and Saddler, respectively. It's expected that all four will see significant snaps.
"Both Mike and Devin, the last couple of days have done more," Chryst said. "I anticipate them being healthy."
No major surprises on the offensive line. Ryan Turnley and Chris Jacobson return at center and left guard, respectively. A year ago, it was Jacobson's responsibility to break in Turnley as a new starter. Now, it's Turnley's responsibility to keep a player Jacobson like Jacobson in line; a player eager to get back on the field. He last played in a game on September 17 of last year.
"He's played before, so he knows what to expect," Turnley said. "He's not going to be nervous or anything like that. He's played in a lot of games; a lot of big games. He'll be really excited to go. We've already talked about how excited he is, just to get out and play again. I'm looking forward to it. It means a tremendous amount (to have him back)."
Cory King will be at left tackle, with Ryan Schlieper at right guard and Matt Rotheram at right tackle. All three have started before, but this 2012 season-opener is new in a sense that it's their first as full-time starters. Even last year, these three filled in for regulars; King for Jacobson at left guard, Schlieper for Lucas Nix and Rotheram as an experiment for last year's UConn game. King holds five starts, Schlieper with eight and Rotheram with two. On paper, the line is replacing three new starters, but Turnley doesn't see it that way.
"I think it can be a strength of our team, I really do," Turnley said. "The way that we came together in camp, we're starting to consistently push out some big runs. Giving Tino some time to throw the ball, it feels a lot better than it did last year."
One defense, seven players listed as first-teamers will make their first start on Saturday. Starting with the defensive line, only Aaron Donald returns. T.J. Clemmings spent the majority of training camp with the first-team at defensive end. He and Donald were the most consistent, in terms of playing time with the first team. Tyrone Ezell started off at end, then moved inside to nose tackle, where he is the first-teamer. Ezell played in seven games as a true freshman, and six last year. Saturday will be his first start.
Jack Lippert moves in at defensive end. Lippert initially filled in for Khaynin Mosley-Smith, who missed the better part of a week of training camp due to injury. When Mosley-Smith returned, Lippert stayed with the first team at defensive tackle, then gradually moved over to end where he will start.
The whole basis of this decision, according to Chryst, is finding the best players. Ezell and Lippert have the versatility to play either, but it's clear Chryst is most comfortable with Ezell inside, and Lippert outside. Mosley-Smith will definitely see plenty of snaps. Those five for sure will see significant reps. It should be interesting to see where the others—Bryan Murphy and Shayne Hale at defensive end, and Darryl Render the backup to Donald—how much we'll see them in the rotation.
"Similar with the offensive line; how can we get the best players on the field," Chryst said. "We certainly think a lot of Aaron Donald and K.K. (Mosley-Smith). (Ezell) finished up the spring on a good note. Before (Mosley-Smith) got hurt, he was doing some good things, so we thought this might be good.
"I think the combination, the emergence of Jack Lippert. I think Ty is a little bit more of a natural (nose tackle). It's kind of a way to try and get your best players on the field."
Linebacker will have three new starters, including two making their first career starts in Eric Williams and Nicholas Grigsby. Shane Gordon will start in the middle. The redshirt junior from Florida started two games last year, and one as a redshirt freshman. He has appeared in all 26 games of his career, and brings the most experience. Players like Williams and Grigsby showed enough in camp to earn first-team status. Joe Trebitz will backup Gordon, while Emanuel Rackard will back up Williams at the SAM linebacker spot. Manny Williams backs up Grigsby.
"I think Freeze (Grigsby) has got a lot of ability," Chryst said. "He's getting more comfortable with it. He finished the spring as the number-one WILL linebacker, and he's had a good fall camp. He's learning a lot of things, and he's learning a lot of the defense. I think he's a talented linebacker."
There could still be some shuffling in the secondary. A lot of that will be based on the health of K'Waun Williams, who went down with an injury last Wednesday. Chryst wouldn't say one way or the other if Williams is definitely back and able to start. Jahmahl Pardner is listed as his backup. Pardner was likely to see action in extra-back packages prior to the transfer of Lloyd Carrington. Lafayette Pitts is listed ahead of Cullen Christian, even though the two split reps as camp went on.
"K'Waun Williams, we'll see on that one," Chryst said. "He was able to do a few things (Sunday). We'll see how each day progresses for him, and to make sure nothing can be further injured for him. Right now, I don't think that's the case."
At safety, Ray Vinopal will start at the strong safety. Andrew Taglianetti and Jarred Holley—who come in with a combined 42 starts—are co-starters at free safety. All three will play a significant role in the defense this year. Jason Hendricks started all seven of his games last year before a season-ending shoulder injury. He is the backup to Vinopal.